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First U.S. GPL lawsuit filed

Sep 20, 2007 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 1 views

For the first time in the U.S., a company and software vendor, Monsoon Multimedia, is being taken to court for a GPL violation. Previously, alleged GPL violations have all been settled by letters from the FSF (Free Software Foundation) or other open-source organizations, pointing out the violation.

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The SFLC (Software Freedom Law Center) announced on Sept. 20 that it had just filed the first ever U.S. copyright infringement lawsuit based on a violation of the GNU General Public License (GPL) on behalf of its clients. The group's clients are the two principal developers of BusyBox. BusyBox is a small-footprint application that implements a lightweight set of standard Unix utilities. It is commonly used in embedded systems, and is open-source software licensed under the GPL version 2.

The developers of BusyBox came to the SFLC after trying to talk Monsoon into honoring the conditions of the GPLv2. Unsuccessful with this, the SFLC has filed suit on the developers' behalf against Monsoon.

One of the conditions of the GPL is that re-distributors of BusyBox are required to ensure that each downstream recipient is provided access to the source code of the program. On the company's own Web site, Monsoon Multimedia has publicly acknowledged that its products and firmware contain BusyBox. However, it has not provided any recipients with access to the underlying source code, as is required by the GPL, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit assert.

Monsoon makes consumer devices primarily for home multimedia users. Its line includes such products as Hava, a place- and time-shifting TV recorder similar to the SlingBox, and SnappySoft, Windows Media Center video capture software.

Interestingly, Monsoon Multimedia is run by a highly experienced lawyer named Graham Radstone. According to his corporate biography, Radstone has an MA in Law from the University of Cambridge, England, and held the top legal spot at an unnamed “$1 billion private multinational company.” He also reportedly held a top management position with Philip Morris.

“We licensed BusyBox under the GPL to give users the freedom to access and modify its source code,” said Erik Andersen, a developer of BusyBox and a named plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Sept. 19 in Manhattan Federal District Court. “If companies will not abide by the fair terms of our license, then we have no choice but to ask our attorneys to go to court to force them to do so.”

The complaint filed by SFLC on behalf of the BusyBox developers requests that an injunction be issued against Monsoon Media. It also requests that damages and litigation costs be awarded to the plaintiffs. A PDF copy of the complaint is available at the SFLC site.

In a statement, Eben Moglen, Founding Director of the SFLC, said, “Free software licenses such as the GPL exist to protect the freedom of computer users. If we don't ensure that these licenses are respected, then they will not be able to achieve their goal. Our goal is simply to ensure that Monsoon Multimedia complies with the terms of the GPL.”

The lawsuit, “Erik Andersen and Rob Landley v. Monsoon Multimedia Inc.,” case number 07-CV-8205, will be heard by Senior District Judge John E. Sprizzo of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Monsoon was contacted by Linux-Watch, but the company has not yet replied with a comment on the lawsuit.

BusyBox in 2006 joined a conservancy started by the SFLC, and aimed at off-loading legal obligations from key open source developers.

About BusyBox

BusyBox was originally created by Bruce Perens, the well known open source software advocate and developer. Its purpose is to combine tiny versions of many common Unix/Linux utilities into a single small executable. By providing replacements for most of the utilities ordinary found in GNU fileutils, shellutils, etc., developers get much of the expected functionality of the GNU utilities without the space requirements.

The programs are used in many — perhaps most — embedded embedded Linux-based devices, such Trolltech's Linux/Qtopia-powered Greenphone, Drew Tech's DashDAQ car engine computer, and Pinnacle Audio's Athenaeum music server.

For more details about Monsoon Multimedia's Hava device, be sure to read our complete device profile.

— by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols; LinuxDevices Senior Editor Henry Kingman contributed to this story.

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